Technology-assisted safety: Beyond hard hats

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Technology-assisted safety: Beyond hard hats

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Technology-assisted safety: Beyond hard hats

Subheading text
Companies need to balance progress and privacy while empowering workforce safety and efficiency with technology.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • August 25, 2023

    Insight highlights

    Rising concerns over workplace injuries are driving businesses to embrace technologies that enhance safety and productivity. Through exoskeletons and wearable health monitors, companies are proactively reducing physical strain and preventing health crises, reshaping expectations for occupational safety. However, this development brings new challenges, including workforce reskilling, data privacy, and the need for updated regulations.

    Technology-assisted workplace safety context

    Warehouse job injuries have significantly increased, with Amazon's rate more than twice as high as non-Amazon warehouses in 2022, according to the Strategic Organizing Center. 
    In their attempts to unionize Amazon facilities, labor activists are focusing on Amazon's track record of workplace safety. Workers regularly attribute the company's stringent productivity requirements and physically demanding work to the high injury rates. In response, several states, such as New York, Washington, and California, have enacted laws to address Amazon's aggressive work quotas.

    Due to worsening workplace-related accidents, some companies are starting to offer technologies designed to keep employees safe. For example, exoskeleton technologies, like Ottobock's Paexo Thumb and Esko Bionics' Evo vest, are being used to reduce physical strain on workers. The Evo vest envelops the worker like a harness, providing support to their upper body during repetitive tasks and challenging postures that are hard to sustain.

    For deaf employees, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests strobe lights, vibrating wearables, floor tape, and cameras to prevent miscommunications that may lead to injuries. Tech platform Shipwell addresses employee mental health and stress, which a General Motors study indicates increases trucking accidents tenfold. Applications such as Trucker Path, which provide truck parking information, are being used to alleviate trucker stress. Finally, companies like Loves and TravelCenters of America are incorporating healthy food options, such as Jamba by Blendid, to improve workplace safety and well-being.

    Disruptive impact

    As businesses continue to integrate technology within their operations, these developments mark the emergence of an era where human effort and technological innovation converge to create an environment of increased safety, efficiency, and productivity. In manufacturing, for instance, adopting exoskeletons that augment physical capabilities can reduce the risk of occupational injuries while enhancing worker output. A case in point is Ford, which, in 2018, equipped its workers with exosuits to alleviate the physical toll of repetitive overhead tasks. 

    Technology-assisted safety measures are also transforming how businesses manage employee health and well-being. Wearable devices such as smartwatches and health monitors foster a proactive approach to worker health by providing real-time data on vital signs and physical exertion levels. This data-driven health monitoring enables companies to intervene before potential health issues become serious, thus reducing medical costs and absenteeism. For example, construction company Skanska USA used smart helmets with sensors to monitor workers' temperature, heart rate, and other vital signs. By doing so, the company was able to effectively mitigate the risk of heatstroke and other health hazards prevalent in the industry.

    However, the integration of these advanced safety technologies raises essential considerations. As machines augment or even replace specific human tasks, job roles and requirements will inevitably transform. While this creates opportunities for increased job safety, it also calls for workforce reskilling. Moreover, businesses will need to navigate complex issues related to data privacy and the ethical use of technology. 

    Implications of technology-assisted safety

    Wider implications of technology-assisted safety may include: 

    • A greater societal expectation of workplace safety and health pressuring companies across industries to invest in such technologies.
    • An aging workforce continuing to be productive for longer, as technology-assisted workplace safety tools reduce physical strain and health risks, which are often reasons for earlier retirement.
    • Governments implementing new regulatory frameworks or updating existing workplace safety laws and standards to enforce the use of newly available safety equipment. Similar legal updates may be applied to protect worker data and privacy, given the potential to misuse information gathered by wearables and other safety technologies.
    • Increased demand for skills related to IoT, data analytics, and cybersecurity due to the need for managing and protecting data gathered from these tools.
    • Unions seeing their roles evolve, as they may need to advocate for the responsible use of these technologies, including issues of data privacy, potential misuse, and the right to disconnect from continuous health or performance monitoring.
    • An increase in electronic waste prompting a need for sustainable disposal and recycling methods.
    • A decline in work-related health issues lowering the burden on healthcare systems and potentially shifting resources towards other pressing health concerns.
    • Specialized training programs to teach workers how to use and benefit from these technologies, creating opportunities in the education sector.
    • Economic growth in sectors developing these technologies, including AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), private 5G networks, and wearables, driving innovation and creating new jobs.

    Questions to consider

    • What technology-assisted workplace safety tools are being implemented in your industry?
    • How else might companies prioritize workplace safety and health?